The party with a difference

The party with a difference

Inner party democracy is a rare bird in Indian politics. In this context, the claim of an Uttar Pradesh minister that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) keeps tabs on its candidates in elections is hardly surprising.

The minister’s statement, reported in The Indian Express on Tuesday, must be seen in perspective. It’s all too easy to slam the BSP as a one-person show. It is, but there’s no point in repeating that: The question to be asked is, why does such a state of affairs prevail in that party?

The party’s bruising encounter with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the snatch-and-win tactics of all parties in UP have ensured a culture of control. The politics of that state has redefined the meaning of “belonging" to a party. Mere election on a party ticket does not ensure that: Other methods of control are necessary. That’s how a culture of spies, control of movement during key votes in the state assembly and other tactics have developed in the BSP.

This, however, is just a first explanation. More fundamentally, the attempted break between dissent and opportunism, formalized by the anti-defection law, has made legislators a “fungible" commodity. Press the button and they will fall in step with the party line. A neat solution to the difficult problem of managing party factions. No debate. No dissent. The anti-defection law, included in the statute book by an insecure prime minister with a brute majority, has had unintended consequences. Instead of curbing opportunism, it has made any reasoned opposition coterminous with opportunism. As a result, legislators don’t dare think independently: They just have to “belong" to this party or that.

The consequences of these trends have allowed the BSP to create and perfect its political strategy: If you can’t win outright, have sufficient strength to deny the cake to others. Also called the kingmaker tactic, this has allowed the party to inch to power, flake by flake, in UP. Now its “nuisance" value is obvious and detrimental to many parties in various parts of India. The spies, the unthinking legislators and the culture of revolting deference to the leader may seem odd in the 21st century, but they are part of our political legacy and serve a useful function in our parties.

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